The benefits of putting culture front and centre in your recruitment and retention programs

By Marty Parker

Corporate culture plays a vital role in any organization’s employer brand. When it is built around a strong vision and values, championed by leaders, and promoted by the team, culture can be differentiator that helps you attract new talent and take your company to new levels of performance; it can also be the not-so-secret ingredient that keeps your existing team members connected to the organization and the work you’re doing.

I recently sat down with John Anderson, Chairman, CEO and Managing Partner at The Oppenheimer Group (Oppy) to talk about their recruitment and retention programs, and why they’ve made the shift from an HR department to a Talent and Culture team.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
John, I’m a candidate to come and join your organization. And I’ve already decided I’m going to get involved. The offer has been made, it’s been accepted and I’m saying, “Hey John, I’m going to join the organization on Monday. What is the brand I’m going to experience and live? And how am I going to see that?” How would you answer that question?

John Anderson:
So one of the things that we have at Oppy that we rally ourselves around is that phrase called ‘expect the world from us’. And so what we hope you see when you come in here is that that is going to be enacted in two ways. One in how we operate our business. We bring product from all around the world to other places all around the world. It’s also going to be what you experience when you interact with other people inside Oppy and how we expect that you’ll interact with our customer base. So that’s sort of a rallying cry around what we expect from you and what you expect from us. And so I would hope you see that right away.

And we set people up with mentors to make sure that they have a way to navigate their way through, because we have videos we go through, we have materials we go through on Oppy and on our culture and how we expect to operate, but then again you just don’t want to leave somebody at that point. So there’s going to be a journey for you, probably that extends a year because we kind of think it takes a year for someone joining our organization to figure out all the things we do, how we do them, and why we do them.

Marty Parker:
Your onboarding program literally goes a year, if not longer. What kind of feedback do you get from people about that?

John Anderson:
You know what, the feedback we get is actually an element of surprise. And the fact that you actually do what you say you’re going to do. And we feel that the culture that you guys have on paper is really the culture here. And they feel the warmth. I see all kinds of emails on a regular basis going back, “I can’t believe the support that I’ve gotten since I joined the organization. It’s fantastic. Everybody makes me feel welcome. Everybody’s out to try to help me.”

So that’s the feedback I get, which makes me feel good. And I always make a point when I go around to the office tours to kind of just have dinner with people after a drink or two, just kind of go to the people I know are new and say, “So how was your experience by the way?” That’s usually when you get the truth. So yeah, we have that process. And then of course, you see the results every year when your survey is done, how people are feeling about the culture.

Marty Parker:
I know onboarding, recruiting has been a big, it has to be important when you go from $7 million to well over $1 billion dollars. But last year you rebranded your HR department and team to call it Talent and Culture. Why was this important and how was the decision made?

John Anderson:
So we looked at it and we said, okay, talent and our HR department is what we would call human resources in the past. What we measured by basically was how do they fit our culture before we hired them, and how are they going to fit into our culture going forward? And so I said if this is the way, if this is what’s happening here, then they need to be responsible, as sort of guardians of that culture. Obviously, I have that responsibility as CEO, but I want to make sure that they are really feeling responsible for the culture of the organization. So we put the two of those together.

And basically, I think was really well received from people who are coming into the organization, the hits we’ve gotten on our websites (we redid the website on it), both internally and externally have been momentous compared to what hits we used to get on it. So it just kind of says to you, what is your organization like? What do you guys think? And you obviously tie the two of those together.

Marty Parker:
It sounds like there’s a lot of listening going on at Oppy in terms of what people think and how they feel.

John Anderson:
Absolutely. And I think that’s something I learned working from the ground up was that everybody along the way, whether you think it or not, has an opinion. And usually they’re better at their job and what they’re doing than you are. So if you want to be successful, you need to listen to whatever roadblocks you might be putting in place that you’re not aware of, give them the tools to do their job better. That’s what it’s all about.

Marty Parker:
We love to say, we recruit for fit. We help organizations do it. We think we do it pretty well. But it’s not always that easy. What do you do to ensure that you make that onboarding process a good one?

John Anderson:
Yeah. I think that what we do is we just don’t have HR do the interview or what we would call it, Talent and Culture do the interview. There’s a team developed. And so whatever department those people are going to go into, the team of basically four or five people that might be interfacing with that candidate is also part of the process. Not initially, but later on. And so before the person is selected, that person also gets to see who they are going to be working with and the type of people they’re going to be working with. And then the people that are working with that person say, “yeah, I think this person is a fit” or “I don’t think this person’s a fit”. And because they’re part of the process of learning, they’re also going to want to make that person successful.

Marty Parker:
As you look into the future, what do you see as critical to aligning your people to your culture and attracting the talent you need to continue to have the high performance culture you do at Oppy?

John Anderson:
To be honest, you need to be honest with your people to let them know where you’re at and be collaborative with their leaders and clear on having a compelling vision for the future. Like where are we going together? Once there’s a common understanding, then you need to have a roadmap created focusing on just a few things that matter the most like shared direction and vision.

And then you also need to make sure that everybody recognizes how important all the people and all the jobs in your organization are to your success. And there’s no clearer time than today to look at that and say, the people you didn’t think were really all that important are the most important people we need today – they might be a grocery clerk, they might be the guy picking the warehouse or picking in the fields – otherwise you’re not eating.

Marty Parker:
How do you ensure that a lot of the sharing, the recognition, the sharing of the vision and the values, how do you make sure that’s not broken telephone in such a big organization?

John Anderson:
You can’t ever take it for granted and you have to make sure you have the open communication with the people throughout, and you’re constantly getting the information. So we have our monthly sales or management meetings. All the minutes for those meetings go to all the staff. And they get feedback on how we’re doing, what the issues are, where the company’s going. And the same thing happens when we do a strat plan. It’s out to all the people. I travel around to every office. I deliver it myself personally, spend some time one on one with them in a social environment after. So we’re constantly working on people having that feeling and understanding. And if you didn’t do that, I think there’s a very, very strong chance it would be a difficult time to keep that together as we grew like we did.

I would hear from these people, and this was really something that was scary, but also good, “Hey, I went to the other office, I thought I was talking to another John Anderson”. So those are critical pieces. They don’t want to be exactly like me, but they were singing the culture. They were saying, “this is the way we do things here, and we’re proud to do it”. The single thing we get the highest recognition for every year on our survey is “proud to work at Oppy”.